As College Football Grapples with the Coronavirus, it also Confronts its Racist HistoryRoundup
tags: racism, football, Sports History
Bennett Parten is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale University.
The Pac-12 and Big Ten have decided to scrap football for the fall, while the other three major conferences intend to play. Everyone from President Trump to some players and coaches have derided the decision to cancel, and millions of dollars remain at stake.
Tied into the decision-making — and the different choices conferences are making — is another institutional problem with college football that administrators, fans, players and coaches need to address: the many ways the legacy of slavery still surfaces in the game today and the persistence of Confederate iconography in the sport.
The links between college football and the Confederacy date to the late 19th century. In the aftermath of the Civil War, scions of the old planter class embraced the game in an attempt to reclaim a sense of martial valor lost after Appomattox.
The teams, the formations, the uniforms, even eventually the band, all called back to a long-standing tradition of Southern militarism, and the physicality of the game itself indulged the Southern taste for contests mixing honor and blood, a taste previously satisfied by activities such as dueling and cockfighting.
Later, as the game developed and the sport acquired a national following, highlighted by inter-regional games like the Rose Bowl, established in 1902, Southerners again turned the football field into a space for re-fighting the Civil War. One Atlanta Georgian headline, for instance, described the University of Alabama’s upset victory over the University of Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl as “the greatest victory for the South since the first battle of Bull Run.”
And then came the battles over integration in the middle decades of the 20th century. As the bowl system spread, producing more games between integrated Northern squads and teams from the segregated South, college football emerged as a key inflection point in the Southern campaign of “massive resistance” against the Brown v. Board of Education decision. As a result, Confederate flags proliferated, becoming one of the sport’s most pervasive symbols. In 1967, the state of Alabama even passed a statue requiring the flag to fly at games held in the state as part of legislation designed to thwart integration.
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